On Track to Total Web Censorship

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News quarantine in Moldova is being expanded, gradually cutting off the public from the undesired content now also on the World Wide Web
Vladimir ROTARI, RTA: The banning of 22 Russian websites at once continued the crusade against “propaganda and disinformation” in Moldova. It was the most extensive blocking of Russian Internet resources since the start of the full-scale conflict in Ukraine. Moscow did not ignore it and, through Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, called it a “hostile step” and “Russophobic attitudes of Western curators.” In addition, Zakharova hinted at a link between the new ban and the upcoming local elections. In my opinion, this link is a bit of a stretch. The current blocking is not a tactical move, but part of a long-standing strategy that has two interrelated components: sweeping away Russia’s information influence, which is still strong, and impose virtually lawful censorship. The two processes run in parallel, with the former serving to justify the latter, although their goals are absolutely different. The fact that the pre-election context is clearly not the main premise for banning the new group of media outlets is also confirmed by the retrospective of events, which clearly shows how, since February 2022, the authorities have been slowly but consistently “switching off” media resources allegedly broadcasting Russian narratives which they consider hostile for them. No coincidence that the Sputnik Moldova news agency, one of the main broadcasters of the Russian information machine in Moldova, was the first to fall under sanctions. Then such resources as RTA, PolitNavigator, News-Front, Eurasia Daily, Echo.md and others were blocked “for publishing false information”. Sputnik’s repeated blocking and the expulsion of the head of its Moldovan editorial office can be considered a preparatory attempt to scale up the information quarantine in Moldova. Now, the websites of the largest Russian TV channels and radio stations are under attack: Channel One, Russia 1, Russia Today, NTV, etc. Obviously, this was not about a targeted approach – to compile the “kill list”, the SIS authors simply selected from the top of the most popular names. We can foresee that, as in the case of the CIS agreements, the authorities will periodically update the list of banned sites. For example, federal news agencies such as TASS and RIA News, the main “information carriers”, which, by the way, have offices on Moldovan territory, have not yet been affected. We might assume that they will be among the next “victims”. Eventually, any sources of information that are connected with the Russian authorities will be blocked. We remember that Igor Grosu once proposed to ban all sites with the “ru” domain altogether. But it is clear that the executors do not want to take on a responsibility they will not be able to handle, so they are acting without haste and methodically. The struggle against Russian disinformation has become a convenient excuse to “weed” the country’s media field on a large scale. Any criticism of the president and the ruling party is now equated at the level of official ideology with foreign propaganda, the main source of which is Moscow. This position has emboldened to a certain extent, allowing to take measures unprecedented in Moldovan history to “protect” the population from information that does not please the republic’s leadership. Not only Russian media, but also local outlets whose narratives - or lack of them - are considered to please “Kremlin’s interests” are subject to sanctions. Ideally, only outlets from the ruling party’s media group and those sponsored by Western funds should remain in the country’s info space. The filtering of television content by revoking the licenses of opposition TV channels, blocking official and not so official Internet resources naturally pushes the audience to social networks and messengers, where information can still spread freely and uncontrolled. This dynamic is also reflected in the data of specialized sociological studies. However, the authorities are ready to respond to this by the recently formed Centre for Strategic Communications and Combating Disinformation. This institution was created on Maia Sandu’s initiative and is likely to be fully launched very soon. The draft law on its creation was finally adopted in August, and this month former Interior Minister and presidential associate Ana Revenco was appointed as its head. It is still hard to say how exactly the work of the Centre, nicknamed among the people “The Ministry of Truth”, will be organized. However, judging by the text of the law, the comments of experts who participated in the development of its concept, as well as Sandu’s statements, we can assume that the main functions are to track intolerant information on all platforms, primarily on the Internet, to mark it as “fake” and/or eliminate it through authorized bodies, and to coordinate censorship measures in the country. There are high chances that the idea of such a structure appeared not in the presidency, but at the suggestion of Western partners, who pay great attention to protecting Moldova from disinformation and cyberattacks. For instance, this was one of the goals of the special civilian mission established by the European Union in spring. In addition, with financial support from the United States Agency for International Development, UTM plans to open a cyber security academy. Recently a delegation visited Chisinau and presented a project of the German Agency for International Cooperation “Info Trust Alliance”, financed by the German Foreign Ministry, at a meeting with the president’s entourage. This project should ensure the information security of Moldovan citizens and will operate together with our Centre for Strategic Communications and Combating Disinformation. As we see, influential external players not only approve the ruling regime’s actions in media field, but also appear to support them directly, including with money. This support is a key condition for the successful introduction of almost total censorship in the Moldovan Internet, as only the West’s discontent could have a sobering effect. However, Washington and Brussels, which earlier repeatedly criticized Moldova for restrictions on broadcasting even Russian media, do not intend to restrain anyone now. This suggests that they have common goals and that it is more important for development partners to have a pro-Western Moldova than a truly democratic one. The tandem of full power and international support will eventually help to achieve the goals by establishing a solid information barrier around the Moldovan audience under the pretext of fighting Russian propaganda. In what way this can be challenged is not quite clear yet.